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Babagana Mohammed

Mohammed: Politicians Must Have a Second Address

The 32nd President of the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE), Engineer Babagana Mohammed has said any politician without a job outside politics is a recipe for corruption. In an interview with Onyebuchi Ezigbo, Mohammed spoke on how to put things right in the country to catch up with development in the 21st century. Excepts:

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hat has been the contribution of engineering and engineers to the development of Nigeria since independence?

The contribution of engineering and engineers to the development of Nigeria cannot be quantified. Let me take you to way before I was born. The foreigners came and built railways but after they left, who are those maintaining them? They are Nigerian engineers.

You see Nigerian refineries all over. You will not see any white man handling the maintenance. The engineers, technicians and the craftsmen are the ones carrying out the maintenance. Don’t we need to celebrate them? Some of the Nigerian roads were built before independence and the new ones that are coming up are being maintained by engineers.

For instance LNG Bonny, 98 per cent of their staff is Nigerians competing on the global stage. They are competing with Europe, America, Asia and still making profit. Shouldn’t we be proud of them? Shouldn’t we celebrate them?

If you want to take it further, go outside Nigeria you will see Nigerians excelling in every field of endeavour. In fact, engineers’ ingenuity has changed so many things in Nigeria. We are not where we are supposed to be but we have played our part excellently well, but that does not mean we cannot do more.

What are the challenges the profession faces in Nigeria?

In life, challenges are many and in life you don’t to remain without challenges. It is not possible. Some challenges are germane and others, I don’t even want to take a look at them. For instance, most people, because of their mentality will prefer a white engineer to a black one and it pains me. You know why it pains me? The same Nigerians will go to America, Europe etc and excel and come out with excellent result. Why the preference for colour of the skin?

This makes me angry at times. But maybe one day we will overcome it. When Nigerians start believing in themselves, then, things will change. It’s just that many people don’t believe in themselves and so they find it difficult to believe in somebody else. Let me put it in proper perspective, people graduate here with second class lower, third class and what have you and go to America and obtain first class and what have you.

Something must have happened to warrant that result. They just didn’t go there and sleep but the point remains that they started from here, a very tough environment. I agree that they have more facility than we have and are exposed to so many things that we don’t have including the latest machines, but I won’t agree that we lack knowledge.

What is the implication of patronising foreigners to the detriment of Nigerians?

Let us be very clear, nobody will love your country more than you do – take it or leave it. Nobody can come from neigbouring Chad and say he loves Nigeria more than me. I disagree. The next point I want to make is that nobody will develop Nigeria more than Nigerians. If I’m given a job to do, I will do it passionately even though you are paying me. Assuming you are bringing somebody from Cotonou, are you not going to pay him? But he will not be as passionate as I will be, because it is not his country. I have a stake; that is the difference.

We see the federal government is awarding contracts and most times the contractors are foreigners. Is it like a vote of no confidence on Nigerian engineers? And what are you doing to address it if you are not happy with it?

Certainly, I am not happy with it. When you are making preposition, you have to be honest in your analysis and you have to be honest with yourself. Yes, I need to develop capacity. I don’t have issues with that, even those foreign companies you are talking about passed through stages to get to where they are. I don’t have issues with that.

Assuming since we started, any contract given to a foreign company, certain number of engineers was attached to him to understand that particular job, we will not be where we are today. Go to Saudi Arabia, Dubai in particularly, how many are they? The indigenes don’t work but whatever you want to do in Dubai, whatever you bring, an indigene must be the chairman of that company, they must take a larger percentage of income on that site.

What does that translate to? Ownership! All the people getting engaged, money in the hands of their indigene, empowering them and in the process they are also doing the work, acquiring first class knowledge on the job. Tomorrow, if there is any shift, those of them who are in the system will grow and occupy the seat. That is the essence. In Nigeria, does it happen like this?

The answer is no. That again takes me back to patriotism. We just have to be patriotic. Knowledge is not what you develop in one day; skills are not developed in one day. It’s stage by stage. One level at a time! If you cannot give that to your people and you want them to just wake up one day and go to the moon…

The idea of America going to the moon was born in 1962 by President John F. Kennedy. Everybody was looking at him as a mad man. Well, after his death, America went to the moon. It was a thought he had dreamt that it is possible. A lot of billions, humans were lost in the process during the testing period, you don’t hear their names but ultimately the three astronauts landed in 1969.

And that is what they are using now to recover all the money they have lost, installing satellite and others. That is good planning. So, we need to plan; our leaders need to plan and you need to deliberately put a policy to empower your people. The best part of empowerment is not giving out money but to give him skills and knowledge.

The 4th of March was declared as the world engineers’ day. What does that entail?

The 4th of March has been declared by UNESCO, as the World Engineering Day and the celebration is going to kickoff that day in Paris, the Headquarters of UNESCO. The essence of declaring that day World Engineering Day is just to celebrate engineers and engineering, because engineering is life; it is development.

No aspect of human life or activity can go on without an aspect of engineering. So UNESCO found it fit to celebrate those men and women behind these accomplishments. That is why they declared the 4th of March every year beginning from 2020 as World Engineering Day.

So what are the plans of the Nigeria Society of Engineers to mark the day?

When we mentioned UNESCO it means it is worldwide and various countries make up UNESCO and for our engineering group, we have what is the World Federation of Engineering Organisation, and it’s been decided that we celebrate this day in our various countries.

In Nigeria, we have lined up activities to mark that day. First, we are to identify engineers in the engineering family; the engineering family we have the engineers, artisans, technicians and the craftsmen. I am the head of engineering family in Nigeria. We are going to celebrate those that have done well in the field of engineering and we are starting with 60 renowned engineers, who have excelled in life. It means I may not be part of it though I am the President of NSE.

Some of those to be Honoured are professor Awojobi, University of Lagos, the man that went to Supreme Court to explain why 2/3 is not an election, the first engineer in eastern Nigeria, the first engineer in eastern Nigeria, the first engineer in Northern Nigeria, the first woman engineers, engineers with innovative inventions, technocrats, these are the kind of people we want to celebrate.

Some of them may no longer be in service or even alive today but we need to tell the world that these people had done their bits. There is a saying that you don’t need to allow your man to die before you celebrate him. If he has done excellently well, celebrate him while he is alive.

For instance, the man who created Nigeria Society of Engineers in 1958 in London needs to be celebrated, because if he had not had the thought at that time, we will not be seated here today and saying what we are saying. We have come a very long way and it is good to be celebrated.

It’s not all going to be celebration, we are also going to look at where we are, what have we done wrong, take critical look at ourselves again

Are you in support of the position that politics is too serious to be left to politicians alone, and as such professionals with a second address should get involved, because you just said our politicians are not patriotic?

I did not say politicians are not patriotic but they need to do more. On professionals getting into politics, yes, I don’t have issue with that, because, the understanding here is once you are a professional you are an ethical person, an ethical person in government will follow the ethics and do the right thing. It might go the other way. It is a two-way thing, but that is the understanding.

But the best bet is, politics is a very serious game and should be run by serious people not mediocre. I agree that people must have second address. Who are you? I am a politician. He is a nobody. He is a liar. Who are you? I am an engineer and a politician. I have a second address. If there is no politics, I will go back to the office and do my engineering.

If I am a medical doctor and a politician, an accountant and a politician that is excellent; I have a second address. Those who say I am a politician – this is where our problems lies, and are being compounded day by day. People must have second addresses. You must tell us what you are doing, because governance is a very serious business and it needs serious people.

How can we overcome the menace of collapsed building and how many of your members have been sanctioned?

You see when you mentioned the issue of collapsed building, should I laugh or keep quiet?

You can do both.

Okay then, let me laugh but I will also talk. I am a Nigerian and I want to put things in the right perspective and be honest with everybody. Once there is building collapse or structural collapse somewhere, the first name you will hear them call is the engineer. Nobody wants to know what happened, who and who were involved, nobody cares about that.

All you hear is where is the engineer; the engineer is the first point of call, which is okay. We are happy that we are recognised. At the point of collapse everybody looks for the engineers but at the point of building, nobody remembers to involve the engineer. It is still okay and we are happy with it also.

But as I am talking to you, only two cases of building collapse are Nigerian engineers involved. Those are the ones before us. All the cases of building collapses you are hearing, engineers are not involved. That will now take us to the point where we define, who an engineer is. You must define who an engineer is but you start saying what A, B and C are doing. If you don’t know what A, B and C are doing then you will lump everybody together and say they are engineers.

Let me cite an instance for you. I was the chairman of NSE in Victoria Island. We had a case involving a Federal High Court Judge and a professional builder. She had a plot of land on the Lekki axis that she gave a so-called engineer the land to build a house for her. You know lawyers are very tough people. This one is a lawyer, a woman and a high court judge, that combination means she was tougher.

Yes, Chukwudi is a professional builder. In fact, he worked for Julius Berger for more than 25 years. He knew the job; he was good with aesthetics. Once you see the house physically, it was excellent but he is not an engineer. This structure is standing because there is engineering in it, once there is no engineering in it, this building will collapse.

It is engineering that makes the structure to stand. You can over design, under design, you can design vaguely but it is engineers that make structures to stand. That is key. So, that house kept cracking, very beautiful house. I was there to see it myself. You know what she did? She ran to court and instituted a court case, more so as a high court judge she would have told her colleague who is to handle the case and say, deal with this one for me let me collect my money.

For a woman to lose N250 million, do you think it’s easy? Even for a man, is that not a tough game? So, she went to court, instituted the case against the man and tied NSE into it. I can understand her thinking. She gave the man money to buy building materials etc and she was asking for N500 million damages.

That man does not have that kind of money, because he has used the money to buy materials for the building and she wants that money back. How will she get it? Will he sell his wife and children to raise that money? Her intention of tying NSE there was on the assumption that since he is our member and we must have certified him fit to be our member; we must take responsibility. But we found out that the man is not an engineer, although he is called an engineer, because he builds houses.

Once you do a job excellently well, people call you an engineer.

We checked our database, our records because letter was sent from the High Court to us. Then I was a chairman of a branch in Lagos, which was under my jurisdiction. I invited him like five times he never came. After doing our due diligence, we went to COREN and checked for his name but his name was not there. I called him like five times with my own phone but I later discover he didn’t want to see me, because the game was up; his secret was out, he was not an engineer.

So I wrote back to the court that we don’t have issues with you, the man in question is not our member. I went to the court myself and made the submission and came out. Then the narrative changed and the man should still be in jail by now, because the money the woman was asking for, she couldn’t get.

Assuming he was an engineer, she would have pinned NSE down and would have even come here to sell our building to recover her money, because she is a lawyer, she would have gotten a judgment against NSE and that would have been the end. How we come out of it wouldn’t have been any of her business.

So, for us, building collapse, yes because people lose their lives and we are not happy, but Nigerians are not doing the right thing. Some people are building and are not using engineers, because they want to cut cost, but how much is our cost compared to loss of resources and lives? It is massive. How much is an engineering cost that you will dodge from it even though you know the implications? Can you pay for one life?

So, what are you doing to change this narrative?

We have been advocating and will keep advocating that whatever you want to do, please engage engineers, engage professionals, who are certified. In the building industry, we are so many; use everybody. When you have something to do with quantity surveying, use quantity surveyor; when it has to do with building, use they builders and when it has to do with engineering, use the name engineers. It saves you time, energy and you will get value for your money.

Don’t you think you have to go further than that by way of engaging the people responsible for the building collapse?

In fact, what we are now doing is because checking quackery is a very difficult task, there is an association of building, craftsmen, artisans that came up of recent. We are now partnering them. These are people, who are semi-skilled workers. We are reaching out to them. We are assembling all of them to train them. There was a time in this country that they will tell you that to get the best person to do POP for you, you have to go to Cotonou. How is that possible?

We are 200 million Nigerians. What is the population of those in Cotonou? What is their level of intelligence and exposure? What do they know that we don’t know? I am a Lagos man; tell me what we don’t know in Lagos that someone in somewhere else knows more than us? Sometimes, it is because maybe we are not very serious people.

But we are now trying to challenge the narratives and that is why we have to start training the local people, the artisans for them to understand the standard they need to follow. It is in their own interest and our interest as well, because anytime there is a collapse, it is our names that are being mentioned. They need to understand that each time there is a building collapse the first casualties are usually the artisans and young people, who are in that building.

How many engineers are in a building? Maybe one or two maximum and he may even be outside but those killed are the labourers and other people. The fact is that they are also Nigerians and we work in the same industry with them, so we need to cater for them too. They are taking too much risk and they don’t even know what they are doing, because of their level of education. Since you are educated, you will be the one to protect them and that is why we are going out of our way to train them.

How has it been as 5he president of NSE? The association has been in existence for 62 years, so, what are the challenges and how are you tackling them?

The challenges are many but in different spheres of life. There is the formative stage, growing stage and the adult stage. At 60, I don’t want to recount the problem I had at the formation stage; we have passed that stage. I have learnt my lesson and I am now in my growing stage. Growing stage is a very long stage. I do have some issues, government patronages, political interference and lack of funds etc.

But as I am talking to you, we are addressing them; we are raising our bars; we are making contacts with government and we are talking to government. Last year, we were with President Buhari and we told him our position and he was very happy with us. The Executive Order 5, the Presidential Executive Order for Planning and Execution of Projects, Promotion of Nigerian Content in Contracts and Science, Engineering and Technology by President Buhari, was as a result of our engagement with him.

The order mandates all Ministries, Departments and Agencies (MDAs) of government to engage indigenous professionals in the planning, design and execution of national security projects and maximise in-country capacity in all contracts and transactions with science, engineering and technology components.

We told him he needed to empower Nigerian engineers, because that is the global practice and that is why countries are moving forward. If you refuse, we will remain where we are. If you hear the quantum of money being spent in this country, it is not commensurate to the position where we are. Why should it be so?

The cost of doing business in Nigeria is extremely high and we have intelligent people. Other countries are paying to come and take our professionals from here, to use your intelligence but you are not taking your professional seriously, does it make sense? It doesn’t make sense. People might interpret it to mean we want jobs for ourselves but that is not the issue. We all went to school to read journalism or what have you, in that school you met engineers there, you knew those that read engineering and you knew their intelligence level, yet, you will come out and rubbish them? Does it make sense? It doesn’t make sense.

This is Nigeria, it is our country, engineers alone cannot move the country forward; it is the combination of everybody, but engineers must be on the frontline and then other professionals will join if we were to progress in this century. This is a new decade, you cannot be thinking like you are in the 60s and you want to progress. There is no way.

You cannot go anywhere. I am being very honest with this. This is not about getting jobs for myself. You hear of Singapore, China, you are a journalist you see these things everyday; that is the trend. If you must move to the next level, you must appreciate your engineers and the ingenuity of your engineers. There is no two ways about it.

Are you satisfied with the performance of our regulatory agencies in the field of engineering? Are you comfortable with the performance of the local content law also?

I cannot be comfortable; I can only be comfortable when I see that 80 per cent of the jobs here is done by Nigerian professionals! I would have said 100 per cent but I am a Nigerian – very fair minded and honest person. Sometimes you need the foreign partners to bring in some new technologies that you don’t have. But the level we are in today, I am not comfortable to be very honest with you. I will give them 40 per cent, which is just a pass mark.